PAX East 2015: The Meaning of Virtual Identity

As technology in general and interactive entertainment in particular becomes more sophisticated, the concept of virtual identity becomes increasingly complex. Self-representation as well as explorations of gender, race and sexual identity are uniquely empowered within a virtual environment and the PAX East 2015 panel Player Select: Identifying with Our Virtual Selves delved into this topic with a mix of gaming journalism exploration and academic insight.

Hosted by GameSpot editor Alexa Ray Corriea, the panel brought us an array of diverse opinions about the titular subject. PhD candidate Elisa Melendez described a study with a result of men preferring to create an average looking avatar for themselves, women preferring an attractive avatar and players of both genders often demonstrating a strong class or race aesthetic in creating their virtual representations in a game. Taller characters also divulged more to other characters, which may share the same underlying psychological explanation as real world conversations with height differentials. She also pointed out that there was an odd disconnect between male gamers who can both distrust a female avatar as representing a female gamer as well as trusting enough to send them free gifts based on their perceived gender.

GameSpot executive producer Neha Tiwari expressed frustration that she couldn’t make a character with her accurate skin color in some games, especially considering that the creation of a character often reflects what’s going on in your life at that time. The limited choices for representation in games is a longstanding problem, common enough that she coined the term “The Yoshi Effect” to describe it: for Neha, she would rather be the wholly unrepresentative dinosaur Yoshi in a Nintendo game rather than the comparatively similar Princess Peach who is a human female but otherwise unrepresentative of her as a person.

IGN editor Mitch Dyer revealed that he usually plays as a female character to see how the game world reacts to the gender, which led him to discover that specific dialogue or feedback that is present for male characters is sometimes not present for female characters. That said, there are games that demonstrate gender complexity such as his attempt to seduce Kelly Chambers in the BioWare space epic Mass Effect 2 as a man: he was impressed that she declined due to her sexual preferences.

As creative director at BioWare including the Dragon Age series, Mike Laidlaw noted that there was no perceived advantage to play as a male character and that Dragon Age: Inquisition showed a 43 to 57 percent female split by region. He discussed the power of virtual representation in how it can disassociate with choices made by an avatar who both behaves as well as looks different from yourself. The statistics available to BioWare showed that characters were predominantly of the human race, but it was important to note that there is value in having player creation choices even if they are rarely chosen. The Frostbite engine being widely adopted across Electronic Arts was also technically better at certain identity customization features such as skin tone compared to previous engines, as well as enabling additional granularity such as moving some multiple choice options to a slider.

It is difficult to capture tone and conversational flow in a text based recap of a discussion panel, so I want to note in conclusion that the Player Select panel had a high level of energy and enthusiasm for games. The medium can and should continually improve its inclusiveness and representation of different types of people in its interactive stories, and open discussions such as this panel are important conversations to drive that progress.

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